by Steve Habrat
If you’ve ever found yourself pondering about what film Roman Polanski made after Charles Manson and his bloodthirsty band of cult killers slaughtered his wife, his unborn baby, and a handful of his friends, the answer to that question is a dreary, mud caked version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Perhaps one of the bleakest films you will ever see, considering that in August of 1969, several of his loved ones were so senselessly slain, the film was made out of his engulfing depression, and the result is all sound and fury indeed, but not necessarily signifying nothing. In fact, Macbeth signifies a lot, mostly the events that surrounded the Tate-LaBianca murders. There have been a handful of films made on the notorious Charles Manson, but none have been as lingering as Macbeth is. Polanski molds the tragedy to fit with certain events from the infamous murders, descending into trippy montages, blood-spattered hallucinations, and at the center, a devious Macbeth who dispatches his loyal cohorts to slaughter at will to make the prophecy that was predicted by a motley band of witches remains true. Of course, anyone who has studied the Manson Family murders understands that Charles Manson was a fan of the psychedelic rock record The White Album by The Beatles. He was convinced the album was a witchy message to him about the end of the world, a race riot between the whites and blacks that would devour the earth and leave only him and his followers to rule the world.
In Roger Ebert’s review of Macbeth, Ebert declares that the reason the provocative Polanski elected Macbeth as the film he would make in the wake of his beautiful wife’s death is elusive, and I have to agree with his insight to an extent. It is confounding that he would find solace in the Bard’s material, but Polanski has also made the point that he found himself in a bottomless pit of depression, a depression he had to so desperately shake from his life. He makes the claim that he always wanted to tackle a Shakespearean project and that critics would have labeled any film he would have made as a subtle commentary on the murders. After watching his vision, I found it be one of his most terrifying films (creepier than Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby), and perhaps a more personal, cathartic film. It’s virtually impossible to watch the intrusion on Macduff’s castle while he is away by two murderers who hack up his wife and children. Maybe it is, after all, easy to see why Polanski gravitated to this material. There is fury and superstation leaking out every shot in this film to the point where watching it in halves makes it easier to endure. I should add that it is even harder to watch the climax, which is a handheld shot of a savage fight between Macbeth and Macduff, and not think that maybe this is a personal fantasy of Polanski, where he imagines himself as the vengeful Macduff attacking the despotic and ignorant “king”–Manson.
If you find yourself drawn to this film, you should be aware of what you are getting yourself into. This is Shakespeare after all and the furthest thing from modern day interpretations like 1996’s Romero & Juliet or 2001’s O. The medieval surroundings may send some casual film viewers fleeing, especially when the Bard’s dialogue starts erupting from the mouths of these thespians. For the viewers who watch this with a glass of red wine in their hand, theater junkies at that, they will be tantalized with overdramatic delight as they quote along with the renowned dialogue. I’ve always found medieval projects a tough pill to swallow, and theater even more grueling. Although I find that the underlying implications this film contains to be attention grabbing and an opportunity to watch someone mend wounds that will never truly fade. I don’t believe Polanski when he says that this was an excuse to get back to work. In fact, I think it would be more commendable if he were to admit just that, that it was made in response to the atrocity that shook his very existence and to publicly mend.
Polanski’s Macbeth is a gruesome affair, one that seems hell-bent on showing the audience the carnage that Polanski saw in his home. The film is also a Playboy Production, yes the same Playboy responsible for the nudie magazines created by Hugh Hefner. He serves as a producer here, and judging by some of the films graphic nudity, heavily involved with some of the production, especially with the casting of the beautiful Francesca Annais as Lady Macbeth. This film contains a sequence in which Lady Macbeth sleepwalks nude, a result of oppressive fear, guilt, and paranoia for all the terrible manipulation running rampant in her life. I will only sum up Macbeth briefly, as many should already be familiar with the story. The story follows a Scottish lord Macbeth (Played by Jon Finch) who stumbles upon three witches whom prophesize that he will become king. Macbeth becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming the ruler, taking control of fate and destiny, and murdering the current king. Macbeth gets what he wants and becomes a vicious ruler who will stop at nothing to keep his secret that he murdered the previous ruler to ascend the throne even as suspicion bears down on him. Meanwhile, his wife Lady Macbeth slowly descends into madness in the wake of her guilt.
There is much to compare and contrast with real events in Polanski’s Macbeth. The witches could be seen as mirroring The Beatles, who Manson believed were predicting Helter Skelter, which would bring about the end of the world. He believed that he was to become king of a new world and his followers would be his loyal disciples. Loyal in the pre-apocalypse they were, when at his command, they were sent out to butcher innocent people, primarily wealthy white families and leave “witchy” messages in the hopes that the white cops who would find the scene blame African Americans, sparking a race war. The witches prove to be false, dabbling with psychedelics, which coincidentally The Beatles were too at the time. I have also pointed out the similarities in the siege on Macduff’s home, which ends in slaughter. Funny enough, he is away while this takes place. Polanski has said that he found the inspiration for this scene from when a Nazi SS officer terrorized his home. Manson was also rumored to be a sympathizer of the Nazi party. The scene in which Macbeth stabs to death King Duncan is also graphically violent as Macbeth stabs relentlessly, evocative of what the Manson Family did to his friends and family, all of which were stabbed multiple times all over their bodies. Even during a trippy hallucination montage, we catch a brief glimpse of a baby being ripped from the mother’s womb, an image all to personal to Polanski, who lost his unborn child at the hands of the murderous intruders.
Earlier on in this review, I said that Macbeth was Polanski’s most terrifying film, even more so than Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, two films I highly respect and our proud members of the horror community. Macbeth scares because of it’s scowling pessimism, understandable at the time. It scares because of Polanski’s bobbing authenticity and the darkness of its soul. Macbeth is the ultimate Manson Family film, proving to be higher brow than the decadent exploitation wannabe The Manson Family and more eloquent than Manson, My Name is Evil, which both tackle the Family head on. I believe that Polanski denies that this film is about Manson because he wishes to give Manson zero satisfaction. Manson was blatantly power hungry and had a voracious desire for fame. Definitive if slyly indirect, Macbeth peers into a troubled soul, stanch and grisly about what it displays, even if there is some dishonesty and recoil when it is confronted.